Sunday, July 14, 2013

Departmental Issue, by John H. Dirckx

"
Departmental Issue," by John H. Dirckx, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2013.

For many  years John H. Dirckx has been publishing stories about Cyrus Auburn, a police detective in what I had thought was an unnamed city.  In this one it appears to be Cleveland.  Who knew?

The stories tend to be pretty straight police procedurals, without a lot of personal side trips, but in this case Auburn, newly promoted to lieutenant is feeling a certain amount of paranoia.  His old boss asks him to take on a case too ticklish to share with anyone else in the department: a custodian fell to his death from the roof of skyscraper, leaving behind a former- police department laptop that  was sold to someone at an auction.  Is a cop the killer?

This story lacks one of my favorite things about Dirckx's stories: the interaction between all the regulars.  Since Auburn is on his own we get much less of his co-workers than usual.  But the other wonderful characteristic is Dirckx's imaginative writing style.  Consider: how can you describe a pile of dirt on the floor and make it interesting?

A pile of refuse had been swept into a corner, where it skulked in the lee of a wide broomleaning against the wall.

"Skulked in the lee."  Lovely.

Some more examples:

Rober's wallet was as devoid of interest as a wet paper towel, and his cell phone had come out of the fall with an incurable case of amnesia.

Amid an atmosphere thick with the scent of scorched grease and freshly chopped onions, white-capped and white-aproned servers of both genders took orders, delivered food and drink, and bussed tables with unflagging lethargy.




Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Secret Life of Books, by Angela Gerst

"The Secret Life of Books," by Angela Gerst,  in Mystery Writers of America Presents The Mystery Box, edited by Brad Meltzer, Grand Central Publishing, 2013.

It is a tricky business, writing fiction about real people; more so if the non-fictioner is your main character.  Besides the boring risk of being sued, there is the problem or doing research, and the fact that many of your readers may have a strong sense of what your character should be like, and that may disagree with yours.

I think Gerst does a good job, although I have to say that before I knew the story I knew nothing about Colette except that she was a famous French author, and the creator of Gigi, which became a famous movie.   So I may be off in my assessment of the story, but Gerst certainly convinced me she was drawing an accurate picture.

The story takes place late in Colette's life when her health makes her almost a prisoner in her apartment.  A famous prisoner, with a steady stream of visitors, some famous, and some not.  One of them is Roland, an ambitious chef whose boring chatter she tolerates for the extravagant dishes he brings her.  Roland is marrying a much younger country lass, who hopes to save her family's dwindling estate.  When someone gets killed, Colette must come to the rescue. 

The writing is good, and here is my favorite example.

"How long will your dear husband be away?"

"Too long."  Colette explained that Maurice was promoting her books in the world's richest land, "now that Europe has again reduced itself to ashes."

My darling Colette" -- Liane helped herself to more coffee -- "nobody reads in America."

"Oh, but there are so many of them, even nobody is ten thousand."

Sunday, June 30, 2013

A People Person, by Michael Koryta

"A People Person," by Michael Koryta, in The Strand Magazine, November-February 2012-2013.

The Private Eye Writers of America named the Shamus nominees today and one of them is the story I chose last week: "The Sequel," by Jeffrey Deaver.  Excellent choice, but I am still feeling justified in listing Deaver's story and this one as 2013 because 1) I didn't read them until this year, and 2) the issue date covers through February of this year.  So there.

What Koryta has given us is a lovely little character study about Thor, who has been the hit man for two decades for Belov, who is the head of organized crime in Cleveland.  These two have been through tough times on two continents and, in a business that doesn't  support long-lasting relationships, they seem inseparable.

Thor had seen his father killed at age six, and that was not the first corpse he had viewed.

 The English word for the way Thor felt about killing was "desensitized," but he did not know that it was a proper fit.  Maybe he was overly sensitized.  Maybe he understood it more than most.  Maybe the poeple who had not killed or could not imagine being killed were the desensitized breed.

What could come between Thor and his boss?  Could there, to his own amazement, be a line he could not cross? 

Yup, and a very unexpected one it turns out to be.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Sequel, vy Jeffrey Deaver

"The Sequel," by Jeffrey Deaver, in The Strand Magazine, November-February 2012-2013.


What do these novels have in common?
A Confederacy of Dunces
Gone With The Wind
Mister Roberts 
Raintree Country
To Kill A Mockingbird

Well, besides being considered important American novels, they are each the only book by their authors.  There seems to be a special catgory in the American imagination for these books that stand alone either because the author died soon after writing it, or because the author chose to give up the field.

But imagine if another manuscript by such an author was found.  And what if it is a sequel to the classic?

That's the concept of Deaver's novella, and it is great fun.  Frederick Lowell is an elderly literary agent and one day he gets a letter that hints that one of his deceased clients wrote a sequel to his classic novel.  Lowell travels around the country in pursuit of it and - well, a lot of things happen.  In fact, it almost feels like Deaver made a list of every way this story could work out and then rang  the changes, covering every possibility. 

In the first half of the story he gives us a classic quest structure but when that ends we get a mystery, one with several red herring solutions, clever reversals and unexpected twists.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Remaining Unknowns, by Tony Broadbent

"The Remaining Unknowns," by Tony Broadbent, in Mystery Writers of America Presents The Mystery Box, edited by Brad Meltzer, Grand Central Publishing, 2013.

True confessions: I am not a big reader of suspense or thriller fiction, and that's what we have here.  Mr. Broadbent has presented a fine example of the genre, taut and well-written.  I enjoyed it a lot.

Bobby is a member of the bomb squad in New York City and he is tasked with disarming a van full of nasty stuff.  He reminds us of the saying that when you are about to die your life goes through your mind, and so we see his life, including the tragic circumstances that may have led him to the bomb squad.  The story flashes between the bomb job and the story of his life.

Hell of a life.  Here is part of his explanation of why he is unmarried:

Love may conquer all, but not all fears.  Love opens you up to fear in ways unimaginable before that love ever took hold of your heart.  I can walk into the mouth of hell every single day, but I will not take a woman or child I love in there with me.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Newton's Law, by John M. Floyd

"Newton's Law," by John M. Floyd, at The Big Adios, May 28, 2013.


My friend and fellow blogger John M. Floyd is a master of a certain type of very short story.  Typically there is a puzzle and a single clue the reader should be able to figure out.  Think Encyclopedia Brown for grown-ups.  John gets a lot of these stories into Women's World, a market I have, alas, never managed to breach.

This western crime story reminds me of those, although it isn't a solve-it-yourself kind of story.  In fact, it takes quite a way in before you realize the puzzle that is being solved.  (That's the cleverest part of the tale.)

So what's it about?  A lawman and his assistant are bringing a suspect back to town when they get into big trouble.  And in a situation like that, who do you trust?  That, as Wild Bill Shakespeare said, is the question.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Stimulus Money, by Dan Warthman

"Stimulus Money," by Dan Warthman, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2013.

Imagine you have written a story and, lucky you, gotten it published.  You want to write more about the same character.  How do you go about doing it again, but doing it different?

Charles M. Schulz said "A cartoonist is someone who has to draw the same thing day after day without repeating himself."  And that is sort of the challenge an author faces with a series.   People want to meet the same Sherlock Holmes in every Doyle story, but they want him to be doing something different.

Warthman is facing this issue in his second published story about retired hitman Jones (after "Pansy Place," which made my best-of list for last year.)  (And by the way, he writes about creating the mysterious Mr. Jones at Trace Evidence.)

In the first story Warthman established a cast of characters: Jones "trying to fit into retirement," his former boss Konnie, who is the jolliest crime boss I have ever encountered, and Akin, the young hitman Jones is mentoring.

If all this crime sounds like I am describing a grim story, I am misleading you.  They are witty Robin Hood tales in which Jones uses his particular skill set to help out somebody. 

These days, doing a few pro bono jobs, solving problems for people, civilians.  Aggravations and frustrations.  Jones cut through the formalities, the rules, the mores, the laws, and gets matters settled.  Helps people out.

 In this case, Akin's mother's boyfriend has gotten into debt with a payday lender of dubious ethics.

It might be interesting to compare Warthman's tales to  Jas. R. Petrin’s stories about Canadian loan shark, Leo “Skig” Skorzeny, who is always reluctantly willing (if that phrase makes any sense) to get his friends out of trouble.

Both series are well-written and fun.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Waco 1982, by Laura Lippman

"Waco 1982," by Laura Lippman, in The Mystery Writers of America present The Mystery, Box, edited by Brad Meltzer, Grand Central Publishing, 2013. 



I opened, well, e-opened the new MWA anthology, and came across this nice and melencholy tale.  Marissa is a new and somewhat accidental reporter, on her first job in Waco, Texas.  Her tempermental boss gives her what feels like a fairly pointless assignment: writing an article about the sort of stuff that winds up in the lost and found boxes of motels in Waco.

And pointless it is.  But it turns out someone does have an ulterior motive, and there are layers of small city life under the surface that even that person is unaware of...  A nicely brooding reminder of life between the sexual revolution and the AIDS crisis.  Oh, and before the journalism market went down the tubes, too.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Hangman's Break, by Albert Tucher

“Hangman’s Break” by Albert Tucher, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2013. 

I have written before about the type of story I call the Unknown Narrator.  That means that all the reader knows about the narrator is what other people say about him/her -- and those people are wrong.  Tucher's story is a variation - the people really do know about the narrator's secrets, but the reader has to slowly figure them out.

The year is 1969 and hero is a police chief who got his job in part because during World War II he fought alongside the son of the local industrialist.  Now that same son is found hanged on a railroad bridge.  Suicide, or something else?  We learn the grim details of his war experience, and then we learn how the after-war yearas have effected our hero.  And some rough semblance of justice is meted out.

Good story.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

LIttle Big News: The Red Envelope

Hard to believe there is any medium I haven't already reported this, but my "The Red Envelope," winner of the Black Orchid Novella Award, is in the current, July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  I also talked about writing it at Trace Evidence and found something different to say about the process at SleuthSayers.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Gallows-Bird, by Kevin Mims

"The Gallows-Bird," by Kevin Mims, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2013.

Somebody said there are only 36 plots.  I don't know about that but I do know certain plots show up in mystery fiction with greater or lesser frequency.  Man decides to kill wife.  Criminal gets hoist by own petard. Some of these things show up in every anthology or crime magazine you pick up.

But I am more fascinated by the rarer plot, the one that you could probably fill one volume with if you put all the examples together.  And one of those is what we are seeing today: An established writer and a novice writer conspire to commit a fraud on the public.

I suppose the reason this subject interests writers is obvious.  In effect, it is work chatter, right?  In most examples I have seen the older writer wants to hire the younger as a ghost (See Donald Westlake's The Hook, for instance) but Kevin Mims has taken a different approach in this story.

The older writer is a certified great novelist with tons of prizes and a niggling bit of self-doubt.  His rival says he is over-rated because he is a life-time member of the literary establishment (studied under other top people at Ivy League schools who got him great reviews on his first book, etc.).  So he wants his last novel to be published under the name of the young author, in order to get an honest judgment.

If this were a horror movie you would be yelling at the screen "Don't do it!"  Unfortunately, just like the pretty girl heading down the basement of the haunted house, the young writer won't listen...

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Footprints in Water, by Twist Phelan

"Footprints in Water," by Twist Phelan, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2013.

Twist Phelan juggles quite a lot of balls in this story and keeps them flying pretty flawlessly, I think.

Henri Karubje is a detective in the NYPD and he is called out to help investigate the missing daughter of  a Congolese family.  The relationships between the people, and with their medicine man, neighbors, and priest, are complicated to say the least.

Tangling the matter further is that Karubje is not their as investigator, but as translator.  The lead detective is a newly promoted woman he has worked with when she was on patrol.  The cliche here would be to have them in territorial conflict but Phelan chooses instead to have the new detective looking for more help while Karubje insists on making/letting her run the show. 

Karubje is haunted by his childhood in the genocidal conflict of Rwanda and he makes good use of his memories of that horror to sort out the motives and inconsistencies of the characters.  

Definitely worth a read.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Adrift, by Rex Burns

"Adrift," by Rex Burns, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, June 2013.

This is the second time I have reviewed one of Rex Burns' stories about Constable Smith, a half-Aborigine cop in the wilderness of Western Australia.  Smith is a classic type of  character; being neither all one thing or the other, he is doomed to be an outsider everywhere, and makes an excellent guide to both worlds for the reader.

In this case there are not two cultures involved, but three.  Two Japanese tourists chartered a boat to take them out for a day of scuba diving three miles from shore.  The hard-drinking captain insists they never came back up.  His mate, an aborigine has jumped ship and disappeared.  Smith uses his knowledge of Aboriginal culture to find the truth, which is rooted in a bit of Australian history that was certainly new to me.

Good story.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Mayan Rite, by Terence Faherty

"The Mayan Rite," by Terence Faherty, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, June 2013. 


"When I first heard 'Mayan rite,' I thought it might involve a human sacrifice.  Maybe even the removal of a beating heart."
Anya's smile died.  "Every wedding requires a human sacrifice," she said.  "And often the removal of a beating heart."

Well, I don't know about you, but that exchange certainly got my attention.  It happens deep in the middle of this story, which is largely a character study.  My co-blogger Faherty has a great talent for characterization through dialog.  See Anya above, for instance.

The protagonist, Robert, is a middle-aged guy, down in Mexico for a family wedding.  We don't learn a lot about him (not coincidentally he's the one who talks the least, a very reserved sort of guy).  His brother, on the other hand, is more outgoing: "Before we're done, Mexico's gonna be sending out for more tequila!"

But Robert is the one who notices what appears to be an unhappily married couple.  And he notices some bad stuff...  There is clever deduction in here too.  A lovely piece of work.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Tricky Business in Mai Chau, by Nathan j. Beyerlein

The Tricky Business in Mai Chau, by Nathan J. Beyerlein, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, June 2013.

This is a very old-fashioned story, and I mean that in a good way.  It takes place in a current setting but it is about a man who solves a crime through shrewd deductions.  Moreso, it is narrated by the detective's companion (in this case, client) who is utterly baffled by the brilliant discoveries.  This is aliteraty tradition dating back to Poe, of course, and the first detective stories.  Which doesn't make it less fun.

Bertrand Stein lives in Hanoi and he's in a panic.  An old college friend has come to visit him and disappeared.   Unable to interest the authorities, who figure she is just off sightseeing, he contacts a local American blogger he knows through the Web.  Nat Burg is the brilliant amateur detective who solves the case with some very clever thinking and knowledge of the local scene. He is clearly being set up as a series character with tons of eccentricities, mysterious past, and an acerbic tongue.  "You asked me to help, not give you a tutorial in basic logic."

I look forward to more adventures of these characters.  I do have to point out that when a writer named Nathan Beyerlein writes about a hero named Nat Burg, the name Mary Sue comes leaping to mind.

i

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Not A Penny More, by Jon Land

"Not A Penny More," by Jon Land, in The Strand Magazine, February-May 2013.

This story made me nostalgic for Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Magazine, which lived from one end of the 1980s to the other.  It specialized in fantasy and what you might call light horror.  For example, I still remember Evan Eisenberg's "Heimlich's Curse," about an archaeologist who opens a pharoah's tomb and winds up drowning in a vat of peanut butter.

My point is that this nifty story might have been quite comfortable in that late lamented market.  I'm glad it found a home at The Strand.

Walter Schnitzel is a loser and a loner.  He is a middle-aged accountant, watching younger men get promoted over his head.

But his life makes a sudden lurch when he takes an old clunker of a used Buick for a week-long test drive.  All of a sudden Walter gets lucky - in more senses than one.  His whole self-image changes as well.

So, is the car magic?  Is it all coincidence?  And, oh yeah, why is this story in a magazine full of crime stories?

All shall be revealed...


Monday, April 1, 2013

Thriller Nominees

Congratulations to the nominees for the International Thriller Writers' THRILLER Awards.

BEST SHORT STORY
David Edgerley Gates – “The Devil to Pay” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine)
Clark Howard – “The Street Ends at the Cemetery” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine)
Dennis Lehane – “The Consumers” (Mulholland Books)
Gordon McEachern – “The History Lesson” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine)
John Rector – “Lost Things” (Thomas & Mercer)

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Derringer Award Winners, 2013

The winners of the Derringer Awards were announced today by the Short Mystery Fiction Society.  Congratulations to all!


Best Flash Story:
The Cable Job - Randy DeWitt

Best Short Story:
Getting Out of the Box - Michael Bracken

Best Long Story:
When Duty Calls - Art Taylor

Best Novelette:
Wood-Smoke Boys - Doug Allyn

In The After, by John Gilstrap

"In The After," by John Gilstrap, in The Strand Magazine, February-May 2013.

My story in this issue of The Strand  has been described as a tearjerker, which is enough to make me wonder if I'm going soft.  My fondness for Mr. Gilstrap's nasty little tale restores my faith in my own essential wickedness.

Tony and Elly Emerson have just returned home after dropping their daughter off for her first year of college.  They find their home invaded by a stranger who is after vengeance.  It seems a mistake Tony had made many years before has come back home to roost.  Some lives will be changed, and maybe a few ended, before the dust settles.


Tony felt himself breathing heavily again.  "Oh, my God.  You're insane."
Another laugh.  "Hardly.  I'm a teacher with a lesson plan."

Class is in session.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Dead Man's Daughter, by Phillip DePoy

"The Dead Man's Daughter," by Phillip DePoy, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, April 2013.

I have to say this is an unusually good issue, which makes it hard to choose favorites.  (Yes, I know I have a story in it; even barring that, it's full of good stuff.)

I don't think I've ever encountered Mr. DePoy before.  Apparently some of his twelve novels are about the protagonist of this tale, Fever Devilin, a laid-off professor of folklore who has resettled in his parent's old home in the hills of Appalachia.

And a creepy story it is.

There is a place in it called Devil's Hearth, and an apparent ghost, but it turns out the really creepy elements are living people.  At the start Devilin is shot at by a backwoods preacher who seems quite unperturbed to be shooting at the man on his own property.  Then there is a teenage girl who is quite content that her miserable and abusive father was killed years before.  And finally there is someone wandering around outside the cabin at the place called Devil's Hearth.

I think what made this story stand out in a good batch is a particularly brutal line of dialog at the very end.  Talk about noir...